Sunburn refers to the burn to the living tissues on the surface of your skin. The sun radiates ultraviolet (UV) rays that your skin can only tolerate to a certain extent. Prolonged exposure to harsh sunlight can result in skin tanning or sunburn. Sunburn is different from a skin tan because your skin often becomes reddish and painful to touch in this condition. Repeated exposure to UV radiation does not only cause sunburn but also increases the risk of other skin-related conditions, including skin cancer. Sunburn can be treated by using home remedies or topical medications.
The primary cause of sunburn is prolonged exposure to UV radiation. Your skin cells release a compound called melanin, which gives color to your skin and also protects against the harmful effects of UV rays. When your skin is exposed to harsh UV rays for a long time, skin cells start to produce more melanin, which results in skin tan. After a certain duration, the surface of your skin starts to burn if exposure to UV rays is continued. This can lead to surface-level inflammation of your skin, resulting in reddishness, pain, and increased sensitivity.
Sunlight is not the only source of UV radiation. Repeated exposure to UV rays from artificial sunlamps or tanning beds can also cause sunburn. It is also possible to get suntan even on cloudy or rainy days because the UV rays from the sun can still reach your skin.
The risk of sunburn is higher in those with light skin, blue eyes, or red/blonde hair. This is because their skin has less amount of melanin to protect them against the harsh effects of the sun. People who live in sunny areas or go there for vacations are also at risk. Locations at higher altitudes are more exposed to sunlight, and the risk of sunburn there is greater. Staying outside for vacation or work purposes without any protective measures also increases the risk of this condition. It is also important to know that wet skin is more prone to sunburn compared to dry skin. Getting exposed to UV rays from artificial sources for a prolonged duration may also lead to sunburn and other skin issues.
Sunburn is very common in the United States. It can occur at any age, but it has been noticed predominantly among teenagers and young adults. This is probably because the young population tends to spend more time outside for fun or work purposes. Around 50 to 70% of the young population experience sunburn at least once a year in the United States.
One common indication of sunburn is the reddish or pink coloration of skin areas exposed to sunlight. You may notice a clear distinction between normal skin color and sunburnt regions if you wear shades or cover clothes. Sunburnt skin also becomes tender and painful to touch. The temperature of the affected skin regions is often hot or warm. Blisters may appear if the sunlight was too harsh. Other symptoms include headache, weakness, nausea/vomiting, fatigue, and sore eyes that result from intense sunlight exposure.
The diagnosis of sunburn is usually made based on its physical presentation. Your doctor will perform a physical examination to notice the areas of sunburnt skin, its temperature, texture, tenderness to touch, and other factors. There are no diagnostic tests or imaging techniques required to visualize the damage caused by the sun. Specific tests are only necessary if your doctor suspects any other skin condition such as vitiligo, eczema, skin cancer, etc.
Some conditions that may resemble the signs and symptoms of sunburn include solar urticaria, atopic dermatitis, acute contact dermatitis, photosensitive drug eruption, photoallergic reaction, cellulitis, chemical or thermal burns, systemic lupus erythematosus, etc. These conditions should be differentiated on the basis of history and clinical presentation.
Once sunburn has occurred, it may take 2 to 3 days for the full extent of skin damage to become apparent. Any form of medical treatment or home remedies cannot help form a new, healthy skin layer. Therefore, it may take a few weeks for sunburn to heal. But the use of supportive care can relieve the symptoms and fasten the healing process. Stay indoors while your damaged skin is healing. Wear light and loose clothing during this duration. Applying a cool towel or taking a cold shower can temporarily decrease the redness and swelling. One of the home remedies for sunburn includes applying aloe vera gel on the affected areas. If your skin is allergic or sensitive to any ingredients of the gel, avoid it and consult your doctor for effective medications.
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen, naproxen, etc., can help in reducing pain and inflammation caused by sunburn. If you have signs of severe inflammation, your doctor may prescribe topical corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone cream to relieve the symptoms.
Sunburnt may take a few weeks or months to heal. The healing rate depends on the extent of sunburn and exposure to UV rays in the healing duration. Many people recover completely from sunburn damage if they follow proper precautionary measures.
Sunburn can be prevented by limiting exposure to sunlight or artificial UV radiation. Whenever you have to go outside during day hours, wear protective sunscreen 10 minutes before. If you have to stay out for a longer duration, reapply sunscreen after a few hours to maximize its effect. Wear clothes that cover your skin and protect you from harsh sunlight. Keep hats, caps, shades, or other equipment to protect your exposed areas of skin.
Our clinical experts continually monitor the health and medical content posted on CURA4U, and we update our blogs and articles when new information becomes available. Last reviewed by Dr.Saad Zia on May 30, 2023.
Sunburn - The Skin Cancer Foundation
How to treat sunburn (aad.org)